Irish officials have little faith in the Lebanese investigation into the murder of Private Seán Rooney amid indications the soldier was killed in a targeted gun attack.
There are also increasing suspicions about Hizbullah’s denial of involvement in the attack which occurred against a backdrop of heightened tensions between Unifil forces (United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon) and the militant group.
Preliminary investigations show that the shot which killed Pte Rooney was fired through a rear window or through an open rear door. The glass in some of the rear windows was either removed by the attackers or came out when the vehicle crashed while trying to escape the violent crowd which surrounded it.
The firing of the bullet from the rear of the vehicle through a broken window or open door indicates Pte Rooney’s death was of a targeted nature, rather than the result of a haphazard spray of bullets, a defence source said.
At least five shell casings have been recovered. They are believed to come from an assault rifle-style weapon.
The armoured vehicle carrying the soldiers was carrying out a routine journey from the Unifil area of operations to Beirut airport late on Wednesday night when it became separated from its accompanying vehicle and left the approved route. It entered the coastal village of Al-Aqbieh, where it encountered a group of locals who had been watching the World Cup match between France and Morocco. The villagers became angry at the presence of the UN vehicle. They formed a blockade around it and started to attack it.
On Friday, Government and defence officials refused to accept on face value a statement by Hizbullah that it had no involvement in the attack which it called an “unintentional incident”. They were echoing comments from Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney on Thursday refusing to accept “any assurances until we have a full investigation concluded to establish the full truth”.
Sources cited recent efforts by the group to prevent the freedom of movement of Unifil peacekeepers. “It might be the case they incited it directly. Or it might be indirect through their rhetoric against UN peacekeepers. Or they might be telling the truth. We’ll have to see,” one diplomatic source said.
Three investigations have been launched; by the Defence Forces, the United Nations and the Lebanese authorities.
However, only Lebanese police officers will be able to interview suspects or make arrests. Irish officials expressed doubt on Friday that the investigation would bear fruit. They pointed to previous recent investigations by the Lebanese authorities into incidents of violence involving militant groups which went nowhere.
Hizbullah has a complex and sometimes interdependent relationship with official Lebanese authorities and its army. “Since 2006 in Lebanon, especially south Lebanon, there’s a consensus that the authorities don’t want to stir the pot too much. So these things hit a brick wall,” an Irish official said.
One approach Ireland may take is to ask France or another larger country to exert pressure on Beirut to progress the investigation, an Irish diplomatic source said.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin on Friday said Ireland is determined to establish the truth in relation to the incident and there were calls for a speedy investigation into the attack from Unifil and the UN Security Council.
While on a visit to Unifil headquarters to pay condolences on Friday, Lebanese prime minister Najib Mikati said “whoever is found guilty will receive his punishment”.
Meanwhile, Trooper Shane Kearney, who was in the vehicle with Pte Rooney, remains in a critical condition in a UN hospital in Lebanon. Two other Irish soldiers are recovering from more minor injuries.
Three Defence Forces military police personnel and one legal officer have deployed to the country to assist in the Irish investigation and liaison is ongoing with An Garda Síochána about it providing assistance.